Exhibition

Cristóbal Balenciaga: The cocoon silhouette vs the New Look

Photo: MoMu Antwerp / Stany Dederen

Photo: MoMu Antwerp / Stany Dederen

Haute couture is like an orchestra, for which only Balenciaga is the conductor. The rest of us are just musicians, following the directions that he gives us. – Christian Dior

These words famously pronounced by Christian Dior in 1955, at the height of his own career, perfectly summarize Cristóbal Balenciaga’s undisputed leading role in fashion during the 1950s and 1960s. However, this didn’t always seem such an obvious development. When Dior himself captivated women around the world with the presentation of his first collection in February 1947 he was also launching the dominant silhouette of the 1950s, soon to be known as the New Look. Featuring rounded shoulders, a cinched waist, and very full skirt, the New Look celebrated opulence and a certain branch of voluptuous femininity. After years of military inspired fashions and sartorial restrictions resulting from war, Dior seemed to offer women exactly what they were aspiring to, even if this entailed reintroducing the corset in their wardrobes and in their lives. In the early 1940s Cristóbal Balenciaga had already initiated a creative path of his own, marked by a progressive experimentation with form and construction which aimed at establishing a new relationship between body and garment. Balenciaga’s introduction of the cocoon silhouette played a vital role in this process. Balenciaga’s interpretation of the cocoon silhouette was closely related to the Japonism that influenced fashion at the beginning of the twentieth century. Couturiers such as Paul Poiret, Callot Soeurs or Madeleine Vionnet incorporated the Japanese kimono into women’s dress, bringing with it an unfamiliar silhouette that would revolutionize fashion over the next few decades. The characteristic arch over the back, the collar falling back to reveal the nape, the asymmetrical long hem, shorter at the front and longer at the back: these are the most definitive characteristics of this first Japonist silhouette.

Photo: MoMu Antwerp / Stany Dederen

Photo: MoMu Antwerp / Stany Dederen

Profoundly influenced by the work of these early innovators, Balenciaga used his own interpretation of the cocoon shaped silhouette to depart from established notions of beauty and femininity in the middle of the 20th century. It was precisely in February 1947 when Balenciaga presented the so-called “barrel line”, a cocoon shaped and liberating silhouette which obliterated the waist and offered women an alternative way of moving and experiencing dress.

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Balenciaga’s commitment to rethinking the silhouette and searching for alternative volumes had not always been apparent in his work. In August 1939, driven by a marked historicism that pervaded all Paris couture collections of the season, he introduced his famous ‘Infanta’ dresses, which closely replicated the silhouette of seventeenth-century Spanish court dress, with its rigid bust and a tight waist, descending with stark contrast into a voluminous skirt with full hips. Balenciaga, ever the perfectionist, did not hesitate to use the most effective methods for reproducing the desired silhouette.

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Balenciaga, AW 1939, ‘infanta’-style evening dress. © Balenciaga Archives

Thus, Rosette Hargrove, a correspondent for the Newspaper Enterprise Association, reported with significant astonishment from Paris:

Wasp waists are in again – despite the scoffers. Hips are also to be cultivated, if you want to wear some of the new styles convincingly. Rounded hips, in fact, are fast showing promise of becoming one of the canons of 1939 beauty, rather than the defect women have striven so hard to eliminate these past years. Balenciaga, the most recent and very successful addition to the ranks of the top-flight couturiers, had at least three of his mannequins wearing boned corsets. These simply took inches off their waists and made their hips bulge somewhat disconcertingly to the eyes of the unprepared onlookers.

The outbreak of the Second World War and the occupation of Paris in June 1940 imposed a drastic change of rhythm upon Parisian fashion in general, and Balenciaga’s work in particular. In the summer of 1942 Balenciaga presented a three-quarter-length jacket arching around the shoulders and broadening at waist-level before gradually narrowing out to below the hips. The piece in question, its curved shape reminiscent of an enveloping cocoon, stood in stark contrast to the almost military straightness of designs typical not only of that season but of the war years in general.

Cristóbal Balenciaga, Autumn/Winter 1942. Cocoon shaped jacket.

Cristóbal Balenciaga, Autumn/Winter 1942. Cocoon shaped jacket. © Balenciaga Archives

Balenciaga was to perfect this silhouette in the summer of 1947, where three-quarter-length jackets and coats of identical profile were indisputably the stars of his collection. The cocoon silhouette became a classic on its own time and it soon established itself as a solid alternative that most couturiers endorsed in subsequent seasons, including, of course, Dior himself .

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In a similar vein to the way Poiret or Vionnet’s interpretation of the kimono liberated women from the constricting hourglass silhouette in the early 20th century, Cristóbal Balenciaga’s cocoon shaped designs came to represent a liberating alternative to Christian Dior’s New Look. Beyond his masterfully tailored coats and jackets, Balenciaga introduced a graceful version of the flowing silhouette into his day and evening ensembles, subjecting his own work to a progressive aesthetic and technical refinement until his retirement in 1968.  

Cristóbal Balenciaga, Spring/Summer 1955. Bloused day ensemble.

Cristóbal Balenciaga, Spring/Summer 1955. Bloused day ensemble. © Balenciaga Archives

Game Changers. Reinventing the 20th Century Silhouette now on display at MoMu Antwerp!

Words by Miren Arzalluz